I care very much about the future of religious liberty, and I don’t think, over the long run and in this country, there will be much of it. The Obama administration, and (as I understand it) American liberalism more generally, is committed to the idea that freedom to worship is sufficient, and is trying, gradually but consistently, to discourage Christians and other religious believers from acting out their religious convictions anywhere outside the walls of the church — at least, in any ways that might interfere with the power of the State to arbitrate and dispense justice and charity.
I suspect that this determination on the part of Democrats will drive many Christians more deeply into the arms of the Republican Party, but not me. I find most of the ideas of the GOP, those that reign and those on the margins, in foreign and domestic policy alike, so distasteful that I would almost prefer loss of religious liberty to seeing those people back in power. And in any case, the number of Republican politicians who genuinely care about religious liberty is small and shrinking. I have not voted for a major-party candidate in any election (except a few local ones) since 1988, and I don’t expect to do it again any time soon.
My own political preferences are largely for what I would call Modern Distributism, that is, a version of Distributism emancipated from naïve idealizing of the Western Middle Ages. Distributism, I might say, for people who think the Reformation was not merely tragic and modernity not wholly bad, but who also have a deep resistance to the corrosive effects of the so-called free market on the social order and especially on the poor and weak. (One day I’ll write about all this. It’s not as crazy as it sounds.)
I could defend and explain all of these claims, but I’m not going to do so here, because I’m just stating my basic political position as a preparation for making my chief point.
It’s possible that in the coming years there will be at least a temporary slowing in the erosion of religious liberty, but I can’t see the long-term trends altering. All Americans, including those who call themselves conservatives, are gradually growing accustomed to the elimination of the “third sector” of civil society and will find it increasingly difficult to understand why either the free markets or the State should be restrained from exerting their powers to their fullest. I expect that quite soon most Christians will cease even to ask for anything more from the State than freedom to worship.
For those of us who believe that civil society should be stronger, not weaker, and especially if our primary concern is for the health of religious institutions as the most important mediating forces in society, this change will pose a wide range of problems. For instance, the removal of tax breaks for religious institutions will surely be complete within a generation, and a range of policies will discourage charitable giving, which will make generosity harder — but not impossible for most of us. That’ll be a way for us to discover what we are made of.
But there may be stronger challenges. I suspect that within my lifetime American Christians, at least those who hold traditional theological and moral views, will be faced with a number of situations in which they will have to choose between compromising their consciences and civil disobedience. In such a situation there are multiple temptations. The most obvious is to silence the voice of conscience in order to get along. But there are also the temptations of responding in anger, in resentment, in bitterness, in vengeance. It might be a good exercise in self-examination for each of us to figure out which temptation is most likely for us.
My friend Ashley Woodiwiss used to teach a course at Wheaton College called “Gandhi, King, Havel.” It was a course about multiple strategies of nonviolent resistance to varyingly coercive regimes. I think in the coming years Christians would do well to study those thinkers and other like them, and to spend a great deal of time reading and meditating on the Beatitudes. After all, it’s not likely that there can be any political or social environment in which such reflections would be without value.